Sunday, February 22, 2009

Yam paste with gingko nuts

As much as I like my cakes and pastries, there are times when I just crave for something as simple as yam paste (known as 'or nee' in Teochew), or any one of those sweet paste desserts that the Chinese are so famous for (think almond, black sesame, red bean, walnut paste, etc). When a craving hits me, I make no attempts to disguise or surpress it. Instead, I find ways to satisfy it. Thankfully, yam paste is a common occurence here. Almost every hawker centre has a Chinese dessert stall and yam paste is a regular item. However, being the curious person I am, I can't help but think about what goes into the yam paste I eat outside.

You see, I've heard alot about how the dessert can be quite unhealthy, given that some add lard or copious amounts of oil to attain that smooth, slide-down-your-throat texture. Yes, what you don't know won't hurt you, that I know. But what I couldn't understand was the need for oil in yam paste. I've never made it and no one has taught me how to make it. My parents don't know how to make it and the many times that I've eaten it have been at Chinese wedding dinners.

Yam paste remains a mystery but that was not going to be the case for long. Determined to tackle this challenge of finding out why, I jumped into the unknown and tried to make this dessert for the very first time.

Everyone who's made it says it's pretty easy. That I will agree. I used a recipe from a local magazine and the ingredient list looked pretty easy to me. The method was straightforward. All I had to do was to follow through and I would end up with a decent bowl of yam paste.

Or that was what I thought.

All right, when I attempted the recipe, I was a little ambitious. Ever so determined to come up with a healthier version, I made amendments to the recipe. I halved the sugar, I used more of the healthy stuff and less of the supposedly unhealthy stuff (read: oil). Instead of vegetable oil as the recipe had originally instructed, I used olive oil. I halved the oil too.

After correcting the measurements, I felt good, really good. I couldn't wait to feast on my new and improved yam paste, knowing that I won't be downing an oil slick.

But I was wrong. There is a very good reason why oil is added to yam paste and cooked again in a wok. Yam paste is starchy tuber that results in a thick and gloppy mash if it's served without any oil. The texture of the yam paste changes drastically the moment you cook it with oil - it becomes a smooth and more presentable mixture.

Bottomline is, you cannot have an oil-less yam paste if you want it to taste and feel really good. Yesterday was a good lesson.

You know what they say - the best lessons are learnt through the silly mistakes you make because of your own ignorance. Trial and error is the only way if you have no teacher to guide you. So what did I do? I steamed the yam paste (using only half of the oil the recipe called for) and went to check on it about 20 minutes later. It was my first time cooking it so I did not know what to look out for. After tasting a spoonful, I realised that it was still too gloppy. The yam paste didn't have the texture that I was aiming for - there was no light and smooth consistency. Honestly, I was disappointed. I wanted to blame it on the recipe. But then I remembered the oil. Perhaps that would do that trick.

Working fast, I grabbed the remaining portion of oil, stirred it into the paste and steamed it for a while longer. The end result? Just lovely:

The texture had improved dramatically. My yam paste now tasted like proper yam paste. I thought that the olive oil was a great substitute too. The yam paste did not reek of olives and neither did it affect the overall taste. I thought it tasted good. I was pretty pleased with it.

The yam paste had just the right amount of sweetness (halving the sugar was a great idea. I used raw sugar too) and the pumpkin topping and water chestnut sauce added some colour to the usual lilac-tinted yam paste.

While writing up this post, I did a search on other versions of this Teochew dessert and found that some require fried shallots and coconut milk. Coconut milk, I can understand. But shallots? I suppose it'll lend a certain aroma to the paste (or so I heard). That's interesting. Well I will stick to my healthy version for now. I am also pleased to say that my family loved it. Proof: This morning, I woke up with the intention of having a bowl to myself but discovered that my dearest sister had finished it. Of course, all I did was smile. I can always make more, next time.

Yam paste with gingko nuts - Teochew Or Nee (a healthy version)
adapted from Chef Tong Yu Chou's recipe featured in February 2009 issue of Kitchen Culture's Food & Travel magazine

1kg yam, skinned and cubed
50g sugar
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup or 60 cooked gingko nuts (or how ever much you want)

1. Steam the yam for approximately one hour. Once cooked and soft, mash to a smooth paste. Add the sugar and mix well.
2. Heat oil in a wok (non-stick or traditional. Once the oil is hot, add the yam paste and cook over low heat until the paste does not stick to the sides of the pan.
3. Transfer the cooked yam paste into a bowl. Place the cooked gingko nuts on top of the paste. Steam for 30 minutes.
4. To assemble, scoop the cooked yam paste into individual serving bowls and add the chesenut sauce and diced pumpkin

For the pumpkin topping
50g pumpkin, diced
1/3 cup water
1 tsp sugar

Place all three ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil, until the pumpkin softens. Remove from the heat, strain and set aside.

For the sauce
4 pcs water chestnuts, peeled and chopped
3 tbsp water
1 tbsp sugar
some cornstarch

Combine all ingredients in a pot, mix well and bring to a boil. Add cornstarch to thicken, then remove from the heat.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Save while you dine

Speaking of saving, I'm sure many of you have discount cards or restaurant loyalty cards you stuff your wallets with, in hope to shave a couple of dollars off your next visit to said restaurant. I speak from experience. My wallet's thick with those. Well we all got to do what we got to do to save those extra bucks, no?

If you don't mind your wallet having additional bulk, then you could consider signing up for this card by NTUC. I believe it's called the U card or Uplus card. They have apparently introduced this cost-effective dining privilege program called Udining. Their website says that you can enjoy great savings at over 100 restaurants, caf├ęs and eateries islandwide.

Great for those of you who eat out ever so often and are looking for ways to save (well don't we all). For more information and the full listing of participating merchants, you can go to their site at

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Packed Lunches

It does not surprise anyone when I tell them that most of my salary each month is spent on food. Others save up to buy a handbag or a pair of expensive heels, but I, I splurge on meals that excite, fascinate and please me. Whether is it dessert at my favourite patisserie, or pizza at my favourite pizzeria, when it comes to food, it isn't hard to convince me to part with my money for a gastronomic experience. This has been the case since I earned that spending power when I left school and started working.

You'd think that it's a brilliant arrangement. And I do agree, readily. But right now, I think I have to set my priorites straight, and watch how I spend my money, especially if I am to aim for bigger things like travel. You see, I have been wanting to travel far and wide. I want to go places that I have only seen in photos and heard about from friends. There are experiences which I am dying to dive into. The desire stems from travel deprivation. My family have never travelled far. My parents have only been to Malaysia. They have never sat on a plane. As a kid, the only places I went to were across the causeway - Malacca, KL, Genting, Penang. After every long holiday in June and December, I will return to school and classmates will recount their distant travels to cool places like Disneyland in America or Japan, or Europe. I lapped these descriptions up with such eagerness, making mental notes of the places that I will go to when I am all grown up and have the means to.

Today, I am all grown up and I have been blessed to have first sat on a plane when I was 14. My school had organised an educational History trip to Bangkok and I jumped at the chance. The second time I saw the insides of a Boeing was in 2001 when my dearest aunt allowed me to join her on her trip to Brighton and London. That experience changed me, in so many ways. I remember telling her how unreal this was - that fact that I was in such a beautiful place away from home. You know the cliched phrase? How the grass is always greener on the other side? Damn, that's true. I got to see Shakespeare's house, I witnessed a celebration for the Queen Mother's birthday outside Buckingham Palace. I managed to snap a shot of her in a carriage as it went past me. I watched Cats at Westend. There were many castles and towers that I fawned over. Blooming gardens that made me gasp out loud in simple amazment. London, was simply spectacular. I did not feel any gloom (I thought the weather was fine actually :)

Recently, I went to Bali for a dear friend's wedding. As mentioned, she has since moved to New York. That obviously warrants me to pick New York as my next destination, naturally. She's been asking when will I visit. I had wanted to go next year but I don't think I can wait. Sometimes, when creating goals, you need to fix the target and do whatever it takes to reach it. New York is worthy enough of such persistance. I am planning to finally pursue one of my travel dreams - to spend Christmas in New York. It will not be cheap. I know that. But I'm ready to do whatever it takes.

I am willing to spend less on food.

That might sound like a total abomination I know. But hey, one has to do whatever one has to do to get to their dreams and goals, no? If life has taught me something, it is this. Time waits for no one. So you ask what am I going to do? Starve? Nah, I'm too greedy to do that. I'm going to be smart about it. The answer's very simple, really.

Packed lunches. That's going to be my saving grace. Don't worry, I will not deprive myself of that fantastic meal once in a while. It's just that lunch is my perfect opportunity. That's how I am going to cut costs.

As expected, I have been looking up on tasty options for my packed lunches. So these days, I usually pack whatever leftovers there were the night before (quite a regular thing because Dad always cooks so much!) or I cook before-hand.

I have since found several ways to satiate my appetite in a way that doesn't depress me. You will not find me sad eating my packed lunch. I do find it fun actually. It is also much healthier. Especially when you have full control over what seasoning and ingredients you will be using.

Recently, I came across a brown rice recipe that I thought was dead simple and tastes great. It's a nutty brown rice recipe. Yes, there's lots of nuts in it. Nuts are good and I happen to like nuts so I found it pretty amazing. They are one of the best plant sources of protein. Aren't nuts fatty, you ask. Yes they are high in fat, but mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Those are good fats - omega 3, known to lower LDL cholestrol. Bottomline: it's good for you, as long as you don't overdose. Not only do they contain Vitamin E and selenium, but also phytonutrients and antioxidants. Plus, they are high in fibre.

Are you sold yet? I hope so, because here's the recipe below. I hope you will try it and believe me. Make sure you are not allergic to nuts though. I find that the rice is tasty enough to have on its own but please feel free to throw in random tasty bits like ham (I did that before and liked the result).

Who says packed lunches are boring, eh? Stay tuned for more recipes for packed lunches as I try my darnest to save up for New York. Cheer me on why don't you! :)


Nutty Brown Rice

4 cups water
1 1/2 cups short-grain brown rice
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups mixed nuts, chopped
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

Bring water to a boil in a heavy medium saucepan. Add rice and 1/4 teaspoon salt, then reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until rice is tender, about 40 minutes. Drain in a sieve.

Heat butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat until foam subsides. Add nuts and cook, stirring, until butter and nuts are golden brown, about 4 minutes.

Add rice and nutmeg to skillet and toss to coat.

November 2008
by Andrea Albin

Sunday, February 08, 2009

An unforgettable Balinese weekend

Having never been to Bali, I couldn't understand why those who have been there always come back enamoured and enthralled by the tropical island. Picturesque, immaculate, mystical, and magnificent - these are some of the praises friends have lavished freely when describing Bali to me. Naturally, I took their word for it and made a mental note to grab the next opportunity to head down to this island paradise.

Last weekend offered that very opportunity. My dearest and very good friend Shivani was going to marry the love of her life in beautiful Bali and she made me promise that I had to be there. It was a promise that wasn't hard to keep of course. I was only more than happy to able to be there to witness what would be one of the happiest moments of her life.

Shivani has been nothing short of a true friend all these years. It's been about 8 years and I'm still glad she's part of my life. I will, however, miss her dearly as she flies off to New York tonight. I do want to take this chance to wish her all the very best in her future NY endeavours and of course for her and her husband Aniel to be happy forever. I'm very excited for her as she makes this new transition and I know that there's lots more blessings in stored for this sweet handsome couple.

Their wedding might be over, but it was so memorable that I just had to talk about it here and share a bit of their joy and a piece of Bali with you.

Receiving the invite from Shivani was the beginning of all the excitement, squeals, countless "oh-my-gosh-i-can't-believe-you're-getting-married!", and plenty of wide smiles and misty eyes.

I am showing you the cover and the first page of the invite. Do read the quote by Beethoven. It is very endearing. I had read it elsewhere but reading it again in this context surely stirred a fuzzy feeling. I know that Shivani and Aniel are made for each other. I'm simply estatic that her search for the perfect companion is over.

Here's a candid shot I took of them. They were posing for photographers at Conrad Bali.

The wedding was not only splendid but culturally rich, particularly so because it was the first Indian/Hindu wedding ceremony that I was to attend. I thought the details put into the decoration were really lovely as well. The theme was red and white and you'll see that colour scheme appearing in some photos.

I liked the decorative umbrella.

This was on Sunday morning, at the Ritz Carlton Bali's Bale Kencana. They got a priest to complete the wedding rites. This included the 7 times of walking around the fire. It helped that he explained parts of it in English, for the benefit of the non-Hindus.

Here's the family all poised for a photo:

The entrance of the ballroom where lunch was served after the ceremony:

After lunch ended that Sunday, a horse carriage arrived:

The horses served a specific purpose. It was not there for novelty sake. There's a certain significance to this and usually in India, families would sometimes use elephants. This is for the sending off ceremony. This is the most tearful part because this is the part where the bride's family officially gives away their dearest daughter.

Like any typical Indian wedding, Shivani's one lasted for 3 days. Friday night was the Sagan, Misri, and Sangeet. Saturday was the Navaghari and Ghari ceremony of Aniel and the wedding rites were conducted on Sunday morning (as shown in the picture), followed by a dinner reception that Sunday evening.

In between those wedding festivities, I managed to take a shuttle bus to do a little shopping. On the way, I snapped a few random shots:

I was not surprised to find Starbucks:

I also know it's silly but I had to have my morning dose of caffeine so I got a doppio macchiato and a blueberry scone to go with it. I even got sucked into the whole touristy gimmick and bought myself a Starbucks Bali T-shirt. :)

That weekend in Bali, I must have visited every single 5-star hotel there was on the island. I was at InterContinental on Friday, Conrad on Saturday, Ritz Carlton on Sunday, and I also checked out the Four Seasons because some friends were staying in one of the private villas. I'll let the photos speak for themselves:

The pool at Conrad Bali

Four Seasons Resort Bali

A read-a-book-by-the-sea type of hut, which I loved.

I took some panaroma shots with my humble Sony Ericssion W910i

Note that it is obvious which resort I fancy the most and think is the best.

In my opinion, the other 5-star hotel resorts can't compare to Four Seasons Resort Bali. I think it's just the attention the landscape architects and interior designers of Four Seasons paid to ensure that none of the exotic charm and mystical aura of Bali was lost. Four Seasons Resort Bali manages to be spectacular and yet uniquely traditional.

The following photos of the villa will explain in greater detail:

The walkway from the door to the outdoor lounge area, bedroom, and private pool. Did I mention that they had an outdoor shower as well?

Utterly decadent, and dripping with distinct Balinese exoticism, the villas render one speechless (me included).

The Four Seasons Resort Bali is located at Jimbaran Bay, which happens to be the hot spot popular for its fresh seafood warungs. Having heard so much about the cheap and good sea-grub, I convinced some of people I was hanging out with to grab dinner there. A simple google search led us to Menega Cafe and we were not the least bit disappointed.

We ordered at 10pm and the food arrived half an hour later. We were starving by the time the dishes were served, but all was well. The gang was duly satisfied, and so was I. The total bill came up to about IDR 400,000, which was about SGD50. It was a steal, considering that there were 6 of us. Here's the spread:

We had lots of prawns, a red snapper, a garoupa, some vegetables and a noodle and a rice dish. The grilled seafood came with four bowls of condiments. The chilli sambal was really good and tasted best when mixed with a dash of kacup manis which they also served. The thick sweet black sauce brought out the smokey grilled flavour. There was also a 4 piece band going around belting out dedications. One of the guys asked the band if they knew James Blunt and surprisingly they did. They promptly sang 'Beautiful' and we were impressed.

Though the trip to Bali was a very short one, it was enough for me to see why the island is so well-loved. I will definitely be back soon and this time, I will be sure to visit all the restaurants that I've been dying to go to, especially those featured in The Miele Guide.

Given the short time I had there, I didn't manage to buy any traditional Balinese handicrafts or souvenirs, or sarongs. What I did manage to get was a few knick knacks that I thought were pretty cool. I actually bought a jar of ginger & pineapple jam but I was stupid enough to lug it in my hand luggage and it got confiscated (it was more than 100g!). That was disappointing because I was so looking forward to going back home to slather it on toast for breakfast the next morning. I only hope that someone else will get to enjoy it.

So here's just a sneak peek at my humble loot:

A modern wayang kulit. I bought Dot the male version. As expected, she loved it. We are going to record a wayang video. I will post it up when we do.
Being the curious person I am, I just had to buy these brown packets:

I couldn't describe them even if I wanted to because I have yet to try them. I honestly have no idea what they are. The only words I recognise are 'kopi', and 'rempah'. I asked the sales person but even he wasn't sure. He just said it is some sort of drink. How suspect huh.

Please, if any of you understand Bahasa Indonesia and can translate what the packet says, or knows what they contain, do let me know.

The paper insert that came with the entire bag. Again, it was in Bahasa Indonesia.

Now, guess what this is:

Yes it is a painting. It was apparently hand painted.
I could not stop myself from buying it.
How quaint and useful:

There's even a small one. I took a long time picking the design. There were a limited number and I was convinced that I must pick only the prettiest of the lot. I believe I did manage that. So I went to Bali and I got myself biscuit tins - how novel can that be?

These tins are begging to be filled with candy and biscuits. I cannot bear to put anything in there though. I think the tins will stay empty for now.
Okay, I'm feeling really heavy-hearted as I type this. There are two reasons - 1. I miss Bali and want to go back. 2. I'm sad that my dear friend is not going to be in Singapore anymore. I believe she is on the plane as I type this. My dear, if you're reading this, I just want to say that I will always keep you and Aniel in my prayers and that I will save up and definitely visit you in NY soon! Also, here's a shout-out to all the new friends I made while at the wedding. It's been swell and I hope to keep in touch with all of you!
And before I sign off, I just remembered that I have yet to wish you all a very Happy Lunar New Year. Gong Xi Fa Cai to you all. I hope that your red packet collection has been bountiful. Keep well and eat well.

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